Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Is Diversity Bad for Democracy?

New studies by Robert Putnam ("Bowling Alone") could suggest that it is! Putnam's new data seems to say that living and working in an ethnically or racially diverse environment can be stressful. The outcome for many people is a tendency to self-isolate and "hunker down" in their own homes. Ultimately, the worry is that these people become disconnected from their communities and tend to display less trust in others. (Interestingly enough, the distrust is not just of people who are ethnically or racially different--its of everyone!)

Putnam is, of course, famous for his argument about the loss of social capital in the United States. Less people bowl in leagues today, but about the same amount of people still go bowling. In other words, Americans are not joining social groups as much as they did even 40 years ago. They are not building community ties and civic friendships as much as previous generations.

The worry about such trends, Putnam argues, based on previous studies, is that the loss of social capital in a society makes democracy function much less efficiently. Its harder to make collaborative decisions and think about the common good when the community is distrustful of one another.

Putnam was shocked by some of these results concerning diversity, considering that he supports diversity as a social good. His hope is that even though diversity might reduce social capital in the short term, exposure to diversity can help to erase the stereotypes that lead to the discomfort, in the long term.

Assuming that the data is correct and diversity leads to a kind of mistrust in community: is this necessarily bad for democratic politics? Is trust essential to democratic community?

Perhaps if your vision of democratic politics involves honest talk among equals that's meant to arrive at a consensus about what needs to be done to satisfy everyone. But that's not the only view available. Ian Shapiro, in "The State of Democratic Theory", argues for a view of democracy as a system oriented toward trying to prevent domination. He draws heavily on Machiavelli's work in "The Discourses On Livy" (especialy this part). Democracy is not about deliberation among equal parties for the common good in this view. Its about maintaining power relations to prevent other groups from amassing too much control that they can use it to dominate you. Here, mistrust is more of a guarantee of your liberty than trust is. Diversity is not a problem in this view. Its just the state of things, but one that can create the conditions for a robust politics of different interests confronting one another.

So how ought we to integrate diversity into our democratic life?

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At 11:02 AM , Blogger crallspace said...

Definitely a catch 22... I read part of BOWLING ALONE. I am part of the problem, but ya know.. people are just sometimes hard to get along with and quite honestly, the "independent spirit" gets me through those times. Sometimes retreat is easier than working out personal differences.

At 1:56 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Crall: I wonder if that is an effect of diversity, though. Corvallis is far from being Los Angeles ;)

At 3:39 PM , Blogger dtuiadmin said...

The study results can also indicate that diversity poses challenges that can only be resolved by creating a more inclusive society. If people don't believe the others around them share American values, then they may feel less sociable in a diverse society. This brings up the question of how to define social capital. I would argue that if people can't deal with cultural differences, they certain are low in social intelligence and, thus, need to develop their social capital. Thirdly, our two-party system of democracy is not inclusive. Your voting rights are limited if the democratic and republican mirror-image parties do not offer you a choice that is consistent with your world view. I would say that our brand of democracy in the U.S. is bad for diversity.

At 4:47 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

dtuiadmin: I think you're right and I think Putnam probably agrees. The supreme court also agrees that interaction in a diverse situation is important--it has been the main justification for affirmative action policies for almost 30 years now.

And I do think that the two party system has some very difficult problems creating democratic community: Robert Dahl's "How Democratic is the American Constitution" is a good read on this.

At 9:32 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Diversity is bad for democracy if you think everyone should be like you. Alternatively, if you think something along the lines that the greater the variation in persons, the more healthy the society is (a la ecosystems), then diversity is tremendously good for democracy. Just because it takes more energy to learn about expressions of our humanity less like ourselves doesn't somehow may it a negative. My idea of hell is a world where everyone is like me. Just think about it. One thing to eat, one kind of human expression, etc.

At 10:11 AM , Anonymous popi_and_tom said...

How "to integrate diversity into our democratic life." By inclusion of all peoples that make up that life. Particularly the most diverse, such as ourselves. To include us, for example, requires our fellow citizens have an adequate understanding of our history. As this is sketched in a recent review of six books on the latter topic:


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